This wonderful short story, Knit Your Own Lifeboat, was written by Penelope Randall (Hertford, 1979) and was one of the winners of last year’s Oxford Today creative writing competition — commended in particular for its writing style. It tells the story of single school lesson in all its gritty, realistic glory. Take a few minutes to give it a read.
“They’re doing percentages.”
Friday afternoon. 9K. Hard-boiled sergeant-major types have been known to blanch. It’s my lucky day.
“Miss!” There they are at the end of the corridor, a locked-out muddle (with real mud) of limbs and hoodies. I smile. This disarms them for crucial milliseconds.
“Fkkk off, Miss.” Ronan is allowed to swear because he has Tourette’s.
According to the Special Educational Needs Register, 9K boasts many labels. A taxonomist’s bonanza. There are the Dys- things; Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Dyscalculalia. Many have Behavioural and Emotional Difficulties. It’s rumoured there are at least two ASBOs, but this is dangerous knowledge and Senior Management keeps it locked away.
There are ordinary, uncategorised children too. Not everyone notices them. Endangered species are often hard to spot, even in captivity.
“Mr Hollingworth isn’t in today.”
Mr Hollingworth has gone home with a migraine. Who can blame him?
“Hey Miss.” Carly is tiny and blonde and wants to work with children. It’s likely she’ll get pregnant first. Her friend Megan pushes past. She’s a big girl with an apricot face and chipped shoulders.
A Deputy Head (here at South Road we are blessed with five of them) has cajoled me into giving up my marking time for this. In return my name will be removed from the cover rota for the rest of the term. Like a juror being discharged after a murder trial. It doesn’t help to dwell on the similarities.
Boys are kicking bags along the corridor so they ricochet through the classroom door. (The content of these bags is a mystery. None of the kids has ever been known to bring, for example, a pen to school.) Kyle is the last to arrive. He’s grinning. I’d like to think he’s happy. There is a school of thought that says you can estimate the average IQ of a class if you divide by the number of Kyles. Someone could do a PhD thesis.
I hand a stack of plastic mini-whiteboards to Carly. She sashays around the room, chewing, chest thrust forwards. The boys follow her to their places, punch-drunk.
“Bin, please, Carly.” She spits out the gum and distributes the marker pens. Ronan twists one foot around Kyle’s knee so he falls and hits his head on a table. I tell Ronan to stand outside the door. He refuses. Kyle, pouring blood from his mouth, carries on grinning. I send Megan to the Office with a First Aid note.
We begin a round of Bingo while Kyle lies on a table at the back, bleeding into a paper towel. “Numbers one to twenty-five,” I say brightly. “A grid.” Most people claim their pens don’t work.
“Sixteen divided by four,” I begin. Joyce Grenfell would be proud. Ronan is chanting the F word, but eventually he moves into the corridor. I close the door and repeat the question. No-one writes anything. I take Jack’s pen and draw lines on his board. He throws it on the floor.
“The square root of twenty-five.” Clinging to the shreds of my I-teach-maths fantasy. Blank looks. They’re sucking the ink off pen tips. Desk legs judder. I wait. Far away, the Deputy Head will have regrouped to the Executive Corridor and his Do Not Disturb sign, armed with policy documents and an Inspection schedule. Instruments of Office. Whereas I don’t even have the Geneva Convention. Hey ho.
“Five!” declares Megan from the doorway. Mrs Holland from Reprographics is behind her. Mrs H moves resentfully to the back of the room and eases Kyle onto his feet, giving me a look that suggests I must have encouraged this. Or maybe she thinks I left-hooked him myself.
Megan is fingering my jacket. Chunky-knit, against the Head’s refusal to sanction the heating until after half-term.
“That from H&M?” she asks.
“The square root of one hundred.” Groans from the class. Megan crosses through 10.
“One-quarter as a percentage.” This, of course, is reckless. Fractions are perpetually new to them, no matter that they’ve been dragged through the topic annually for the best part of a decade, in homage to the National Curriculum. Next term there’ll be GCSE exams. (A grid of eight squares. Shade in the ones you need to represent 3/8. Terrifying but true.)
Megan wilts under Jack’s scrutiny, and crosses through 20. She’s stopped looking at my jacket.
“I knitted it,” I tell her quietly. Needles clacking every evening for weeks, after the marking was done. It became compulsive. Reassuring myself of something.
“My Gran’s teaching me,” Megan says unexpectedly. She whispers “You’re a real good knitter, Miss.” There’s a shy smile on her plastered face that does something to my breathing. No-one notices.
There are worksheets next. There are always worksheets. Rainforests die for this. The hands of the clock have stopped. My skin creeps, a sensation that might be associated with camping out on a live volcano. There’s something sulphurous in the air. Eau de teenage boy.
When the bell rings, there’s the usual stampede. I let it go. There are battles that should not be fought.
Megan and Carly leave last. They’ve already hitched their skirts six inches.
“See you, Miss.”
“‘Night, girls.” My knees fold at my desk and I spend five minutes doodling a starry pattern on a whiteboard. Carly’s nursery. Megan’s Gran. Glimmers of something. Hope, perhaps.
I glance at the walls, my display boards. Crayoned tessellations, scatter graphs, co-ordinates that plot your initials. Tangent curves, reaching up from and heading out to infinity. On and on. Never quite getting there. Just occasionally the pupils come back to see us, when they’re grown up. They can turn into nice people.
Megan smiles again, in my head.
Out in the corridor I lock the door and notice the trail of blood leading towards the foyer. I hope it’s Kyle’s. Otherwise we could be in real trouble.